The Modern Façade: Pure Packaging or Responsive Skin?

As the interface between the private and the public realms, the façade assumes a special importance, as is documented by architectural history. Traditionally, the appearance of the façade was largely determined by the relation between the areas of solid walling and the openings. For the Modern Movement, however, the face of a building was to be an expression of its function. With the separation of the load-bearing structure from the outer skin, the façade was reduced to a thin membrane. Egon Eiermann found an answer to the monotony of the smooth curtain walls of the 1960s and 70s by separating the individual functions – sunscreening, spatial enclosure, the provision of escape balconies, etc. – and articulating façades three-dimensionally into a series of planes. The continued validity of Eiermann’s ideas is demonstrated by the buildings of Günter Behnisch (p. 1144ff.). Today, repeated mention is made of a “new simplicity”; but this in turn presupposes new forms of decoration, and any accentuation of the surface runs the risk of superficiality. Indeed, the outer skins of a lot of buildings nowadays are no more than pure packaging. Modern glass technology provides many new means of conveying information or of ornamentation. Francis Soler’s house in Paris (ill. 1) is a striking example of this. The Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron realized a similarly spectacular façade for a vineyard estate building in California, where wire baskets containing stone rubble are stacked on top of each other (ill. 2). As in Soler’s house, the effect is felt throughout the building. Timber strips (ill. 4) and glass louvres are other popular means of structuring smooth façades. Today, two-layer façades are very much in fashion. They have to fulfil a wide range of functions, but in many cases they are an expression of prestige that seek to justify themselves in ecological terms. The technical investment involved is often disproportionate to the degree of utility.
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